Riding the Zamboni – Thursday, December 23rd (late edition)

To read about the much-hyped (and justifiably so) game between the Penguins and Capitals, click here. Check out this post to read Scott Arniel’s angry comments regarding the Blue Jackets’ 7-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks. Finally, here is the early edition of Riding the Zamboni.

OK, let’s look at the two late games.

San Jose 4, Phoenix 1

Ray Whitney scored a power-play goal for the Coyotes and then made way for the Sharks’ considerable star power (and PP prowess) as San Jose rattled off four unanswered goals, three of which came on the man advantage.

Patrick Marleau had two goals and one assist, Joe Thornton scored one goal and added two helpers, Joe Pavelski earned two assists and Dan Boyle scored San Jose’s other goal in this one.

You cannot really blame Jason LaBarbera (35 out of 39 saves) who couldn’t be Antti Niemi (24 out of 25) and the Sharks tonight. San Jose is on a four game winning streak, but still find themselves three points behind the Pacific Division-leading Dallas Stars right now.

Los Angeles 3, Edmonton 2 (SO)

Much like their California rivals from San Jose, the Kings are now on a 7-2-1 streak in their last 10 games after winning a shootout game against the Oilers.

Jonathan Quick’s been playing well lately, earning two shutouts on a five-game road trip and made 27 saves in tonight’s win against Edmonton. Devan Dubnyk had an identical statistical night in regulation (27 out of 29 shots stopped), but Jarret Stoll bested him during the shootout to win the game for the Kings.

Edmonton’s last place spot in the West was cemented while the Kings passed the Ducks for third place in the Pacific despite playing in five less games.

Now Flyers are on a five-game winning streak

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It wasn’t pretty, but every NHL coach prefers the aesthetic value of a “W” over an “L.”

After a bewildering 10-game losing streak, the Philadelphia Flyers are now on a very different run, as a 2-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres makes it five straight wins. Fans probably aren’t calling for Dave Hakstol’s head right now, not with his team a mere two points out of a playoff spot.

Interestingly, it seems like the Flyers may be approaching things in a way that would make Bill Parcells nod in approval: lifting themselves up when down (see GM Ron Hextall’s optimism during the losing streak) while keeping heads straight amid success.

Really, it might just come down to Thursday’s win being “no frills,” as the rest of their five-game run has been pretty impressive:

Dec. 4: 5-2 win at  Calgary
Dec. 6: 4-2 win at Edmonton
Dec. 7: 4-1 win at Vancouver
Dec 12: 4-2 home win vs Toronto
Tonight: 2-1 home win against Buffalo

A three-game road trip through Western Canada can sometimes be deadly; instead, the Flyers buckled up and turned things around, including winning games on back-to-back nights (and three victories in four evenings).

To some extent, the players who’ve been performing well all season are showing up during this winning streak. There have been strong outputs from Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, and others who we’ve come to expect to produce.

The most interesting hot streak might be that of Brian Elliott.

Elliott is responsible for all five of the Flyers wins during this run, allowing eight goals in five contests. Early on, he had to put on a show at times (stopping 43 shots against the Flames), yet he’s only needed to turn aside 39 of 42 shots for his last two wins.

Overall, it’s been an up-and-down first season in Philly for Elliott, a goalie who teams seem almost strangely eager to give up on.

Last season, Elliott played a huge role in the Calgary Flames turning their season around to make the playoffs, including generating 10 wins in the month of March. Ultimately, the team saw enough between a tough start and some postseason struggles to cast the veteran netminder aside.

Perhaps Elliott is a lot like his still-new team in the Flyers: best when people leave you for dead.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Which teams should trade for Red Wings’ Petr Mrazek?

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The Detroit Red Wings raised eyebrows when they protected Jimmy Howard in the expansion draft instead of Petr Mrazek, and things haven’t really turned around since then. Rumors are starting to swirl that a seemingly inevitable split might be brewing in the form of a trade.

The Athletic’s Craig Custance reports (sub required) that teams are calling the Red Wings – though not “banging down the door” – regarding Mrazek, and Custance reasonably asserts that Detroit should play him a bit more to try to raise his standing.

If you consider how much Mrazek’s reputation has slid, Custance’s opinion can really only be denied by a franchise that … is in complete denial?

Mrazek, 2012-13 to 2015-16, 94 games played (via NHL.com): 46-30-8,  nine shutouts, .920 save percentage.

Mrazek, 2016-17 and 2017-18, 60 games played (also via NHL.com): 20-25-10, two shutouts, .899 save percentage.

Quite a disparity between Good/Early Mrazek and Bad/Recent Mrazek, eh?

Things get more interesting when you note that TSN’s Bob McKenzie reports that, given the right offer, the Red Wings would be willing to retain salary with Mrazek. That’s crucial with Mrazek carrying a $4M cap hit heading into restricted free agency. Custance reports that Mrazek might cost a suitor a third-round pick, although salary retention might bump the asking price to a second-rounder.

Rather than ruminating on the Red Wings’ poor handling of Mrazek/unwillingness to truly embrace a rebuild, it would be more fun to picture the most enticing or interesting destinations for the puzzling puck-stopper.

Please note that these aren’t confirmed potential destinations, this is just for entertainment purposes. For the record, the Red Wings would be foolish to let Mrazek walk for nothing, even if they don’t get quite the level of draft pick they’re reportedly hoping for.

Feel free to add in other teams that would make sense to you and/or the respective GMs.

Penguins

Right now, the Penguins have approximately $670K cap space and Cap Friendly projects their trade deadline space at $3.1M, so this would likely be a retention situation.

If any team understands the value of having a Plan B in net, it’s the Penguins. Now, Tristan Jarry‘s been quite proficient (.919 save percentage), but with Pittsburgh in win-now mode for the near future, it might be worth bringing in Mrazek as insurance for Matt Murray. Both of the Pens’ runs required two goalies to shoulder the burden, after all.

There’s reason to believe that the Czech netminder could be a good stylistic fit, too, as his athleticism may come in handy for a team that can be a bit, um, leaky in the defensive end.

[More on Penguins: why a spark may come from within.]

Coyotes

On the other end of the spectrum, you have Arizona.

Perhaps the Coyotes still believe in Antti Raanta, yet this season hasn’t gone well, in part because the former Rangers backup suffered some unfortunate injuries. Even if they do, the Coyotes might see some logic in getting a few months to look at Mrazek, possibly setting the stage for an ideally cheap platoon of Raanta – Mrazek?

Custance describes Mrazek as a rental, in part because of the nature of his contract. Even so, what if the Coyotes got some time with him, liked what they saw, and then simply convinced him to take less than $4M per year with an extension? Stranger things have happened, and the Coyotes could use all the help they can get.

Mrazek also tends to get love from “fancy stats” folks on occasion, and Coyotes GM John Chayka sometimes gets lumped in with such methods of thinking. So maybe he’s eyeballing Mrazek as we ponder hypothetical teams.

Wild

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher is under a lot of pressure as he’s reportedly needing a new contract, and now occasional-meal-ticket Devan Dubnyk is considered week-to-week. Money is tight in Minnesota, but even with a winning streak in mind, they likely want a little help beyond Alex Stalock.

Really, management might see some parallels between Dubnyk and Mrazek. Both goalies quietly put up nice numbers on shaky teams, only to see things fall apart. Dubnyk revitalized his career; maybe Mrazek could do that in helping Minny secure a playoff spot?

Theoretically, the Wild might just need Mrazek the most.

Flyers/Avalanche

OK, this entry’s a little bit stranger, but hear me out.

The Avalanche might not see Semyon Varlamov as their future in net, while the two-headed, two-year-contract monster of Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth is a work in progress in Philly.

So, what if one or two of these rebuilding/in-between franchises wants to test things out with Mrazek? Maybe the Red Wings could earn a better return in taking on Varlamov or one of those Philly goalies, even though they’re signed through 2018-19.

(In the case of Neuvirth/Elliott, their salaries might not even be much of an issue as slightly expensive backups if Detroit finally cleans house, or merely begins to clean house.)

Much like with the Coyotes, these teams would likely be most interested in deciding if Mrazek could be a part of the future. We’ve seen Flyers GM Ron Hextall take on Steve Mason in a similar situation as a reclamation project, and that worked out quite well, at least at first.

(Philly’s current winning streak would probably put such thoughts on the backburner, but still.)

[More on Flyers’ and Elliott’s hot run.]

Oilers

Look, I had to mention the Oilers, as you can’t picture trades without at least penciling a token Peter Chiarelli groaner.

There’s at least some logic to the prospect of Edmonton nabbing Mrazek, too.

Cam Talbot‘s struggling mightily, and with his $4.167M cap hit expiring after 2018-19, he’s not necessarily guaranteed to be Edmonton’s guy any longer. Especially since Edmonton needs to make every buck count after doing the opposite for so many years.

What if Mrazek could get hot and save Edmonton’s season, or at least give Talbot time to get things together? Surely that’s worth (checks notes) way too much? Uh oh, someone take the phone away from Chia …

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets score by committee to overcome Bailey hat trick

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At this rate, it could be a special month of December for Artemi Panarin of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Panarin came into Thursday’s game with five-assist and three-assist nights so far this month, totaling two goals and eight assists for 10 points in six contests. (You can check out footage of his remarkable five-assist performance in this post.)

It remains to be seen if tonight’s performance ranks among the best in his already-impressive December, but Panarin’s 20th assist – and Zach Werenski‘s 10th goal, already – looked so pretty and dominant, you’d almost think it was out of a video game.

Here it is in video form; the additional replays really sell just how long Panarin had the puck, and the fact that he essentially circled the entire New York Islanders’ defensive zone waiting for a recipient:

This GIF might capture it better, actually:

So far, Panarin’s been more of a distributor in Columbus after piling up 30 and 31-goal seasons in Chicago, as the slick Russian winger has seven goals and 20 assists (and counting?).

Werenski, 20, is looking to top what was already an impressive first impression in the NHL. During his rookie season, Werenski scored 11 goals and 47 points in 78 games (and also suffered a hideous facial wound). As of this writing, Werenski already has 10 goals (plus seven helpers), so a 20-goal sophomore campaign isn’t out of the question, even if he is unlikely to continue shooting like a forward.

As a reminder, John Tortorella is giving Werenski and fellow talented scoring defenseman Seth Jones more room to “rove,” as he told The Athletic’s Alison Lukan (sub required) back in early November:

“It’s staying involved even more on the offense,” Tortorella said. “It’s having enough guts when we’re rotating a puck offensively in the corner to go sneak down to the other corner so we can make an east-west play and spread the offensive zone.”

When you have players as talented as Panarin and Werenski bending the defense to their whim, it’s easy to justify taking chances. As you can see, the rewards of such risks can be rich.

Update: The Blue Jackets ended up winning the game 6-4, with Panarin collecting two helpers and Zach Werenski generated a goal and an assist in total. Ultimately, it was about Columbus getting offense from multiple sources, including Oliver Bjorkstrand‘s trio of assists.

Speaking of trios, John Tavares collected three helpers while Josh Bailey almost stole the show with a hat trick.

It wasn’t enough, though, as the Blue Jackets still won. That’s a pretty impressive hatty, though.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Murray and their lasting friendship formed in Pittsburgh

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The text was short and sweet, but it was the start of a friendship that continues today despite a difference in uniforms.

Matt Murray had just won the 2014-15 “Red” Garrett Memorial Award as AHL rookie of the year when his phone buzzed. It was a text from Marc-Andre Fleury, who was coming off of his 10th NHL season. It was a simple message congratulating him on a great season that ended with “see you in training camp.”

The two didn’t realize that a little more than a year from that moment they would be helping the Pittsburgh Penguins to the first of two Stanley Cups — two championships that both would play an integral part in as the franchise slowly experienced a changing of the guard in goal.

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On Thursday afternoon Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan made it official. Murray would return from a lower-body injury that’s kept him out of the lineup since Nov. 27 to start against the Vegas Golden Knights. It was a piece of news that completed the intrigue into the first meeting between the two teams this season. Earlier this week, Fleury played his first game in over two months after dealing with a concussion. It was a warm-up game for the real main event — a game against his old club and the chance to stare down at the other end of the rink and see his former mentee between the pipes.

“It’s exciting for me. He was definitely my mentor, the biggest mentor I’ve had in my pro career,” Murray said on Wednesday. “I wish I had more time to study under him and more time to be around him, but unfortunately we’re on different sides now.”

***

The writing was on the wall at the start of the 2016-17 NHL season. With Murray’s emergence during the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs and an expansion draft looming in June 2017, it was clear that Fleury’s time in Pittsburgh was coming to an end. And while other general managers may have tried to swing a deal in order to get something in return for the player, Jim Rutherford, a former goaltender himself, knew how vital it was for the team to have a two-headed monster. He saw how important it was during the run the previous spring, and with the Penguins going for back-to-back championships it wasn’t going to happen without two trustworthy goaltenders that Sullivan could call upon.

Fleury sticking around through the end of last season proved vital as he grabbed the starter’s reins again after Murray got hurt before their first playoff game. As he did the the previous postseason, Murray regained the No. 1 job and led the Penguins to a second straight Cup.

All of that doesn’t happen if Murray isn’t sharing the net with a veteran like Fleury, and learning as much on the ice as he was off of it.

“He’s been unbelievable. I don’t know where I would be without Fleury’s mentorship, his advice,” Murray told me after the 2016 Cup Final. “There was a couple of times where I was struggling throughout the playoffs and even during the season, and I think that’s normal for a rookie. This is my first time in the league and first time going through this.

“Of course I had some ups and some downs. He was there all the way through to help me through the downs. I’ll remember our friendship forever.”

While some may have a wanted to paint an icy rivalry between the two, it was never like that for them. They wanted to help each other, which in turn would benefit the team. When it was crystal clear Fleury’s days in Pittsburgh were numbered, it was about supporting the young goaltender to handle the rigors of being a full-time No. 1.

When a lower-body injury took out Murray before their first game against Columbus in Round 1 last spring, the final love-in for Fleury began. He helped the Penguins dispatch the Blue Jackets in five games and once again knock out the Washington Capitals in seven games. After Pittsburgh dropped two of the first three games of the Eastern Conference Final against the Ottawa Senators, Sullivan turned back to a healthy Murray, who would start their final 10 games, which ended with another championship.

Fleury may not have finished the job last June in Nashville, but he was a big reason why they were there in the first place, and a huge reason why Murray, the one in net when the clock hit 0:00 at Bridgestone Arena in Game 6, was prepared for the moment.

The celebration in Nashville was one of the final times Murray and Fleury were together. Everyone knew it was Fleury’s last ride and the emotions poured out from his teammates. And when Fleury did his final Cup raise as a Penguin, he gave it a kiss and turned to seek out Murray. He would find him and after exchanging words, he handed off the trophy to his crease mate.

That decision will stay with Murray forever.

“It means everything to me, honestly,” Murray said after Fleury’s Cup pass. “The fact that he handed me the Cup there that was one of the most special moments in my life, for sure.”

***

Ask Fleury what was special about his time sharing a crease with Murray and he’ll tell you “winning.” After a dinner with former teammates Wednesday night, they’ll be opponents on Thursday inside T-Mobile Arena. There will be some fun trash talk during the game from both the Penguins and the goaltender himself, who’s known to dish it out pretty good. Then the two teams will go their separate ways until Feb. 6 when Vegas travels to Pittsburgh for the first time. That’s when there will be an outpouring of love from the city where he grew up as a professional and began raising a family.

And barring any unforseen circumstances, one of Fleury’s biggest fans will be on the other side of the ice once again and memories of their time winning back-to-back championships will resurface.

“That’s what it’s all about. Being able to share it with a good young goaltender who’s going to have a good future,” Fleury said. “I was fortunate to share that with him.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.